Tag Archives: Great Transition Network

Planetary Transformations: A Progressive Quest

20 May




[Prefatory Note: Below are three texts: a paper by the widely respected writer and progressive

scholar, Val Moghadam, that describes what it might mean to have a left transformative movement of planetary scope; followed by a short explanatory essay by Paul Raskin, who exercises intellectual leadership of the Great Transition Network (GTN), a project of the Tellus Institute, that has been supporting the general idea that the existing system of organizing the planet is outmoded and dangerous, and the social creativity should be encouraged to envision preferred alternatives, not in the spirit of utopian speculation, but as political projects to be realized by a dynamic mix of commitment, imagination, and struggle; the third text is my comment on Moghadam’s paper. A sampling of the stimulating array of invited comments canbe found at this link–https://greattransition.org/gti-forum/planetize-the-movement. ]




Planetary Transformations: A Progressive Quest

Valentine M. Moghadam

The Historical Conjuncture

In January 2020, as I was writing this essay, Americans celebrated the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose message of social equality, economic justice, and peace is as relevant today as ever—arguably more so. That month, the US and Iran (the country of my birth) seemed to be on the brink of war. Australia was experiencing climate change-related disaster, the opioid crisis continued to devastate communities and families across the US, and refugees and migrants still faced exclusion and disdain. Income inequality in the US and in many other countries grew ever wider, as the power of capital over labor remained strong. Across the globe, the rightward march of populist politics continued apace.

This is only a small list of the world’s problems, some of which are common to humanity and some specific to nation-states and communities. To echo Lenin, what is to be done? For an answer, we can echo Dr. King: “planetize our movement.” [1] But what is “the movement,” and how can it be planetized?

The World Social Forum, launched in 2001 to assert that a “another world is possible,” attracted civil society organizations and social movements from across the globe, many of them associated with what scholars called the global justice movement, or “the movement of movements.” [2] Then came the global financial crisis, followed by the Arab Spring demanding the fall of authoritarian and corrupt regimes, the European summer of anti-austerity protests, and Occupy Wall Street (OWS), with its rallying cry against the privileged 1%.

A decade later, we face a weakened and increasingly irrelevant WSF, the modest harvest of the Arab Spring along with failed states, the demise of OWS, entrenched neoliberalism, and unabated militarism. These developments have wreaked havoc on communities in the Global South, generating the refugee and migrant waves that resulted in the right-wing populist backlash. Meanwhile, right-wing populist leaders have appropriated some of the grievances and even language of the Left—especially the very early critiques of neoliberal capitalist globalization, as well as the unions’ despair over labor’s displacement and stagnating wages—to win over citizens in country after country.

From a world-historical perspective, we are living in a period similar to the early twentieth century, during which the British Empire was losing its global hegemony. [3] That period led to inter-imperialist rivalries, the Great War, the expansion of socialism and communism, the fascist reaction, and the Second World War. Today, US hegemony is similarly in decline, and the transition and chaos we experience include growing powers challenging that hegemony (China, Russia, Iran); military adventures and the destabilization of states by the US and its allies (e.g., Afghanistan 2001, Iraq 2003, Honduras 2009, Libya 2011, Syria since 2011, Yemen since 2015); right-wing populist political parties and governments; and the ecological crisis.

The moment is ripe for an alternative. Labor unrest has grown around the world, encompassing industrial workers, teachers, health workers, janitors, and others across the Middle East and North Africa, in Latin America, and even in the US. Indeed, we may be nearing a classic Leninist “revolutionary situation,” which could be the culmination of “the world revolution of 20xx.” [4] If so, the Global Left should be better prepared to meet the challenge.

The good news is that there is a “new Global Left” that enjoys a multitude of emerging movements, including climate justice groups led by young people. [5] The rich array of activist groups and the dynamism and passion they display excite a sense of possibility. However, the very diversity of movements and their weak interconnection could constrain the Global Left’s ability to achieve meaningful change. [6] Without consensus around a common agenda, how are we to make the great transition from an entrenched global system based on capitalist profit, top-down decision-making, war, and environmental degradation to a world where people and the planet take center stage in politics and policy? Surely we need not only resistance on a multiplicity of grounds, but also agreement on a clear, coherent, and feasible alternative to the unjust, undemocratic, and unsustainable status quo.

A Missing Global Actor

The socialist and communist movements and parties of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries pinned their hopes on the capacity of a united working class, defined as a largely male industrial laboring class (“the proletariat”), to tame and challenge capitalism. In the latter part of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, the nature of that class changed, now encompassing a broader spectrum of working people, such as those in public and private services (including care workers) who labor under the supervision of highly paid managers and administrators, along with the precariat and gig economy workers. On the Left, however, many do not regard that more inclusive working class as a central actor, despite its composition spanning race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, and gender. [7]

Instead, today’s movements—certainly in the US—seem to define actors based on particular identities and interests. Rather than the singular actor of yore (the working class), today there is a multiplicity of actors across numerous movements. The question arises as to whether such a multiplicity of actors can generate the necessary coordination and craft a strategy to challenge the powers-that-be—economic and political elites situated in national governments; in the financial, corporate, and military sectors; and in institutions of global governance. If those elites are so well connected, why is it so difficult for our numerous movements to coalesce around a shared identity and agenda?

In my estimation, the Left has lost sight of the proverbial forest for the proverbial trees. It has gotten far too caught up in culture wars and battles over identity, forgetting the centrality of political economy to the hidden injuries not only of class, but also of race and ethnicity, women’s subordination, the destruction of the commons, and inter- and intra-state rivalries, violence, and war. This strategic shift away from political economy has removed the Left’s traditional constituency—the working class in all its breadth and diversity—from a meaningful role. The shift also has confused the Left’s priorities. For instance, we cannot truly address the problems of racism and discrimination without giving urgent attention to the systemic problems of class: low-income communities devastated by precarious employment, the loss of public investment, dirty air and water, poor-quality schooling, and bad health.

The politics of class cannot be divorced from those of race and of sex, because class is imbued with race and sex, and race and sex are themselves imbued with class. Under patriarchal and racist capitalism, there is no class exploitation without racial and sexual oppression. The separation of the three intersecting dimensions across unconnected movements—often lacking in understanding of and solidarity with each other—is among the unfortunate outcomes of our times, caused to some degree by partial, segmented internal politics, but largely by the relentless and effective political, cultural, and ideological campaigns of the ruling elites.

Catalytic Action Now

In the wake of the global financial crisis, it became clear that the world needed a new economic system. Change did not come about, however. To offer a viable alternative to financialization and runaway “shareholderism,” movements need to stand for workplace democracy and shared management, and for long-term rational and people-oriented planning over short-term profit. Although breaking up huge corporations should be the goal, taxing them adequately and using the revenue for societal needs and rights, not for continued militarism, can steer society in the right direction in the interim.

At the same time, we also need to think bigger. Contrary to the conventional wisdom that socialist and communist experiments all ended in failure, I believe that there is a lot we can learn from them. Indeed, this “failure literature” lacks balance and historical accuracy. The great socialist, communist, and liberation movements of the past may not have accomplished all that they could have or intended to, but they were very effective providing education and culture for the poor and imparting the legacy of equality, economic justice, and women’s advancement. The Communist movement had its shortcomings, but it promoted women’s equality and racial equality, supported numerous liberation movements, and checked capitalist and imperialist expansion.

In contrast, our recent movements have failed even in the short run. They may have changed the subject—certainly OWS highlighted the problem of income inequalities and helped reintroduce capitalism and its flaws into the national conversation in the US—but they could not compel change of the system itself, much less dislodge its major actors and beneficiaries. Unlike the progressive movements of the late nineteenth century and much of the twentieth century that gave us socialism and social democracy, an end to British colonialism, Third World development, and the demise of authoritarianism in southern Europe, the movements of the twenty-first century have not been able to make headway in structural or systemic terms. Instead, the collapse of world communism—celebrated across the globe—actually generated new crises and chaos.

One response to the crisis has been the new municipalism, which aims to implement localized democratic practices and people-oriented resource allocation. In one promising example, the administration of the Communist mayor of Santiago, Chile, has created a “people’s pharmacy,” offered cheap eye-care and glasses, increased public housing, and embraced leftist approaches to community safety, among other progressive people-oriented initiatives. [8] But localism is not enough, as many of our problems are global in nature. The recklessness of the financial sector has had ripple effects across borders; the obsession with economic growth and capital accumulation has generated a massive, global environmental crisis. That brilliant experiment in radical democratic feminist municipalism—Rojava in northern Syria—was overturned in October 2019 by a brutal Turkish invasion facilitated by the Trump administration. Thus, we must heed Dr. King’s message to “take the nonviolent movement international” and to planetize it.

The Global Left and its infrastructure remain fragmented and disconnected, except for periodic mass rallies against the most egregious actions of global capitalism and imperial states. But it wasn’t always so. Once, vibrant Internationals were organized to guide and promote a worldwide movement. The influential First International, initially called the International Workingmen’s Association, was formed in 1864, but contention between the anarchist and socialist wings led to its demise in the late 1870s. Its successor, the Second International, had great success, but fractured in the run-up to World War I. The Third International formed after the Russian revolution to unite socialist and communist groups from across Europe and Asia, but later, under Stalin, became corrupted into the highly centralized Comintern. [9]

Both the successes and the failures of these internationals offer vital lessons: a powerful worldwide movement could be premised on both a global political organization with a union UGET and the many young supporters of the Front Populaire call for planning and a strong welfare state. Around the world, women have come together around a more inclusive, transformative vision of feminism, which some call “feminism for the 99%.” [10] The “left nationalism” of Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the Kurds is also part of the new Global Left and could help constitute a global movement against capitalism, militarism, and oligarchic states.  strategy for change and the strength of plural and diverse movements that call the status quo into question. To move forward, we need to look back at the old Internationals and, at the same time, not give up on the World Social Forum. The crises and injustices of our times call for both a coordinated “united front” and a loosely aligned “popular front.”

Some say the language of the past—socialism, communism, planning—is outmoded and unlikely to resonate. And yet, many young people embrace the term socialism; in the US, they rallied around Bernie Sanders’s call for “democratic socialism,” and in the UK, they coalesced around the Labour Party’s left-wing faction, Momentum, and its leader, Jeremy Corbyn. In Tunisia, where young people are losing hope in capitalist democracy because of high unemployment and other economic difficulties, the left-wing student

The world’s injustices as well as new possibilities for alliance have inspired calls for coordinated forms of organizing. The deceased Egyptian Marxist economist Samir Amin, for instance, called for a Fifth International. [11] But to balance the complementary needs of global coordination and plural autonomy, as Moghaman two internationals may be needed, one that remains horizontally based—the movement of movements—and the other vertically organized, drawing inspiration and lessons from the old Internationals.

What might this mean in practical, strategic terms? To start, we should revitalize the World Social Forum. [12] It encompasses diverse grievances, identities, and interests; it remains the site for dialogic discussion and the cultivation of solidarity across movements; and it has resisted the authoritarian impulses and practices of capital and the state. It can remain an open space for dialogue among place-based and identity-expressive movements. Building up the Global Left and helping advance a Great Transition, however, requires a global political organization to do the necessary cross-movement “translation” work and deliver a plan for structural change at national, regional, and global levels. Accomplishing this will be an arduous task, but we can’t afford to wait.

Whether it is called the Fifth International, the United Front, the Progressive International, or the World Party, such an organization would be vertically organized, along the lines of the earlier Internationals but with the involvement of anti-imperialist feminist groups such as Code Pink, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Marche Mondiale des Femmes, and the new Feminist Foreign Policy Project. This planetized formation would encompass progressive parties, anti-neoliberal unions, and anti-war movements across the globe. It would practice democratic decision-making and offer a clear vision and mission of an alternative system of production, social reproduction, trade, and international relations. It would revive the 2011 Arab Spring call, “The people want the fall of the regime,” and create a powerful message demanding a re-enactment of what occurred in 1989/1990, but in reverse: “The people want the fall of the ruling capitalist elites.”

Such a plan calls for a renewed emphasis on the working class, expansively defined and represented. Unions could organize the unorganized, carry out the necessary political education work among their members, and create broad coalitions with progressive political parties and unions across borders. [13] It is worth noting that unions of teachers and nurses have been taking to the streets and making demands in Morocco, Iran, Iraq, Tunisia, Chile, and France, as well as in the US. Such parallel developments are ripe for cross-fertilization and coordination.

We should take the best from the past—planning, coordinating, internationalism, and action—and move forward with a common agenda for systemic transformation. To move forward with an International, veterans of past, more centralized movements and organizations might take the lead in organizing an initial meeting, to convene in a country that has felt the devastating effects of neoliberalism, such as Argentina or Greece. Another venue could be Tunisia—now the only genuinely democratic country in the Middle East/North Africa region. Our movements need to coalesce to make the present moment of populism and hegemonic decline an advantageous one for a Great Transition—this time toward a global socialist-feminist democracy built through the synergy of a new International and a revitalized WSF.

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., The Trumpet of Conscience (New York: Harper and Rowe, 1968), 34.

[2] See the GTI forum on the World Social Forum: https://greattransition.org/gti-forum/farewell-to-the-wsf . See also Donatella della Porta, ed., The Global Justice Movement: Cross-National and Transnational Perspectives (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2007); Jackie Smith, Marina Karides, et al., The World Social Forums and the Challenge of Global Democracy (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); Valentine M. Moghadam, Globalization and Social Movements: Islamism, Feminism, and the Global Justice Movement, 2nd ed. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013).

[3] Giovanni Arrighi and Beverly Silver, Chaos and Governance in the Modern World-System (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).

[4] Christopher Chase-Dunn and Sandor Nagy, “Global Social Movements and World Revolutions in the 21st Century,” in The Palgrave Handbook of Social Movements, Revolutions, and Social Transformation, ed. Berch Berberoglu (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019): 427–446; Beverly Silver, Forces of Labor: Workers’ Movements and Globalization since 1870 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[5] Christopher Chase-Dunn, Richard Niemeyer, Preeta Saxena, Matheu Kaneshiro, James Love, and Amanda Spears, “The New Global Left: Movements and Regimes,” IROWS Working Paper 50 (2009), University of California–Riverside, Institute for Research on World-Systems, https://irows.ucr.edu/papers/irows50/irows50.htm .

[6] Valentine M. Moghadam, “The Movements of Movements: A Critical Review Essay,” Socialism and Democracy 33, no. 1 (2019): 19–27, https://doi.org/10.1080/08854300.2019.1653730 .

[7] Marxist theorist Goran Therborn has written despairingly of labor’s prospects: “Class in the 21st Century,” New Left Review 78 (2012): 5–29. For an alternative view, see Victor Wallis, Red-Green Revolution: The Politics and Technology of Ecosocialism (Toronto: Political Animal Press, 2018), esp. ch. 8: “Intersectionality’s Binding Agent: The Political Primacy of Class.”

[8] Daniel Denvir, “A Communist Major in Chile Explains How to Govern Locally from the Left,” interview with mayor Daniel Jadue, Jacobin, April 26, 2019, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2019/04/communist-party-chile-left-governance-recoleta . Thanks to Silvia Dominguez for bringing this to my attention.

[9] Although the Comintern ended in 1943, communist parties remained in close contact until the late 1980s, providing support and solidarity for progressive organizations and movements.

[10] Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Nancy Fraser, Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto (New York: Verso, 2019).

[11] Samir Amin, “Toward a Fifth International?,” in The Movements of Movements: Rethinking Our Dance, ed. Jai Sen (New Delhi and Oakland: OpenWord and PM Press), 465–483 (originally written in 2005), and “It is Imperative to Reconstruct the International of Workers and Peoples,” International Development Economic Associates (July 3, 2018), available at www.networkideas.org/featured-articles/2018/07/it-is-imperative-to-reconstruct-the-internationale-of-workers-and-peoples/ .

[12] Valentine M. Moghadam, “Feminism and the Future of Revolution,” Socialism and Democracy 32, no. 1 (Summer 2018): 31–53; and “What is Revolution in the 21st Century? Toward a Socialist-Feminist World Revolution,” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 47 (2019).

[13] Although Ronaldo Munck dismisses both the Internationals of the past and the WSF as relevant models, he does call for a central role for labor and unions, in “Workers of the World Unite (At Last),” Great Transition Initiative (April 2019), https://greattransition.org/publication/workers-of-the-world-unite . See also Stephanie Luce, Labor Movements: Global Perspectives (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2014).


Monday, March 2, 2020

Dear GTN,

Our March discussion bookends a long GTN series on movement streams that kicked off in November 2017 with a framing discussion on “the problem of action.” That initial discussion was introduced by my How Do We Get There? The Problem of Action , which I encourage you to review along with the rich GTN commentary it generated. Now, we return to the overarching question of how to envision and catalyze a coherent global movement matched to the task of Great Transition.

The title for the March discussion—PLANETIZE THE MOVEMENT!—is from Martin Luther King, who understood the need for systemic solidarity for systemic change. Val Moghadam, a global movement scholar, starts us off with an opening essay (soon to arrive by email as well). Val counsels us to draw lessons and inspiration from left history as we fashion a uniquely twenty-first century strategy, intriguingly calling for “two Internationals.” Her essay sets the structure for our discussion:

The Historical Conjuncture
The character of our fraught globalized moment and the systemic change agents it spawns

A Missing Global Actor
Movement fragmentation, the basis for common cause, and the contours of a unified movement

Catalytic Action Now
Strategies for building a global movement and specific initiatives for getting the show on the road

I look forward to your comments, brief or extended (but less than 1,200 words), through April 1. Then Val will respond, and, as usual, we will assemble a public GTI Forum sampling the internal GTN discussion.

Over to you,


Richard Falk


I found Val Moghadam’s “Planetize the Movement!” a masterful effort to demonstrate the continued diagnostic and prescriptive relevance of Left traditions of thought and practice in responding to the urgent systemic challenges currently confronting humanity. She also offers perceptive comments on the emergence of distinct social movements seeking a better future in distinct spheres of activity, citing especially ecologically oriented activism, feminism in various forms, progressive anti-globalization initiatives, and forms of radical opposition to income and wealth inequalities. Without minimizing obstacles and adverse trends, Moghadam usefully anchors her hopes for the future on two central propositions: first, in her words, “the moment is ripe for an alternative;” and second, planetizing the movement depends on a political economy critique of neoliberal globalization coupled with the advocacy of a new progressive vision that draws heavily on socialist and communist experience and thought of the twentieth century.

I find this a stimulating overall point of departure, and accept the relevance of her innovative formulation of “two internationals,” a horizontal network of progressive social activist initiatives, which I have characterized as “globalization-from-below,” and a vertical mechanism that builds on the experience of the four internationals periodically established over the past 150 years, as well as acknowledging Samir Amin’s proposal of a Fifth International to allow leftist influence to resume its vital presence in the aftermath of the Cold War. [1] While Moghadam is sensitive to the argument that reviving Marxist and neo-Marxist interpretations of her call to action has been widely criticized as passé, she remains confident of its catalytic relevance to the present historical conjuncture, citing the responsiveness of American youth to the overtly socialist message of Bernie Sanders. I am not sure about this: while fully agreeing that a movement for the planet must relate centrally to political economy, I am more skeptical about supposing that we can achieve the understanding we now need from the old left class and labor-oriented revolutionary rhetoric and worldviews. For one thing, the digital networking that underpins globalization and creates new potentialities, dangers, and risks is not easily accommodated, and however hard one tries, the realities of a post-industrial labor market are increasingly as deeply threatened by automation and artificial intelligence as by exploitative elites. This suggests to me a qualitative change that requires a new vocabulary to describe the plight of many individuals, being threatened not only on the level of material livelihood, but also by dehumanization in relation to a meaningful life experience.

Moreover, I am not convinced that the mainstream left traditions are very mobilizing with respect to planetizing ambitions regarding the unprecedented bio-ecological-species challenge. This challenge exposes a missing dimension in most versions of leftist thinking that is as vital as the reintegration of political economy preoccupations into progressive thought and action. It is worth noticing in this regard that it is the admonishing voice of Greta Thunberg indicting the established order for its failure to do what is needed to address climate change before it is too late that has had the most pronounced impact on public consciousness in this century. Her declaration of an ecological emergency that dooms the future unless drastic action is taken, including of course against the excesses of capitalism, is oriented far more toward an Enlightenment insistence on heeding the scientific consensus than on rekindling class warfare. Her essential plea is to be guided by facts and evidence, and not by narcissistic material interests of the beneficiaries of the established order.

Because of its focus on class conflict and economistic commentary, I believe that most left thinking fails to attribute enough responsibility for the evils of our world to “modernity” in addition to damage wrought by capitalism, or for that matter socialism. It is due to the modernity paradigm that we have long enthroned ideas of national sovereignty, tribal nationalism, and state-centric world order, which fosters militarism, imperial geopolitics, and prolonged civil strife. The modernity mindset is more responsible for these features of world order than even the rapacious private sector fondness for bloated military budgets, arms trade, and arms races. In the West, particularly, it is from the individualist ideologies of modernity that we derive this confusion of endowing economic growth and technological innovation with limitless horizons of progress and the bestowal of high degrees of personal contentment, while almost forgetting the lost achievements of premodernity with respect to collective identities and cohesive community. It is notable that even the canonical formulation of human decency in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1950) was expressed as rights of the individual, and complementary obligations of responsibility were ignored altogether. Political economy is crucial, yet also insufficient unless coupled with comprehensive ethical and cultural reframing of the societal norms associated with the modernity paradigm. For instance, the acceptance of limits, so crucial to constituting a balanced habitat connecting human activities with their natural surroundings, is as absent from traditional left thinking as it is from mainstream secularism and modernist rationalism.

Finally, I have some thoughts about Moghadam’s proposed two internationals. While directly responsive to the central theme of planetizing the movement, such a framing seems to neglect the importance of the global normative order, particularly international law and the United Nations, as a primary element of a world transformed in accordance with a progressive worldview. Given global-scale challenges, the need for humane structures of global governance is obvious, which implies regulatory and coordinating mechanisms based on a logic of equality rather than as at present, reflecting the geopolitical realities of inequality. The UN and international law currently exhibit the deficiencies of the established system of world order, especially double standards, victor’s justice, and geopolitical governance. Only the five winners in World War II (75 years ago) have impunity when it comes to upholding international law and respecting the UN Charter, only the losers or weak states are held accountable for adhering to international criminal law, and only the leading political actors retain discretion to engage in coercive diplomacy by way of threat, sanctions, and intervention, which, if countered at all, depends on war endangering countervailing geopolitical encounters. To place these remarks in the setting of Moghadam’s approach, I would insist that there is a need either for a broadened conceptualization of her “second international” or the addition of a “third international” assigned the mission of establishing a more democratized and autonomous United Nations and an international legal order based on the fundamental principle of treating equals equally, whether the unit of concern is a state, a group, or an individual. Such a transformative emphasis on the normative order of regulation, rules, and institutions serving human and global interests as transcending the claims of national interests seems to me to be an integral part of a progressive planetary movement.

[1] Richard Falk, Predatory Globalization: A Critique, Cambridge, UK, 1999.



Making the Earth Charter Happen: A Necessary Utopia

7 Feb

Making the Earth Charter Happen: A Necessary Utopia

[Prefatory Note: The Great Transition Network (GTN), under the intellectual and organizational leadership of Paul Raskin and Jonathan Cohn within the confines of the Tellus Foundation, have been pioneers exploring the preconditions for a peaceful transition a sustainable and humane future for planetary co-existence, both among humans and for human society in relation to its natural surroundings. Such explorations have entailed an enlivened realization that without eco-consciousness the desired transition will be blocked at the start. Paul has authored some highly suggestive commentary on the overall undertaking. One stream of GTN activity consists of periodically inviting an author whose prior work is identified with some theme relating to the GT undertaking, to contribute a background paper that is then distributed to the network for invited comments. In this instance the theme chosen concerned the ethical implications of the implementation of the Earth Charter, a visionary text that set forth some decades ago the ecological foundations of a humane and sustainable future. In this instance, Brendan Mackey, authored an overview paper, and several of us were invited to contribute a comment in response, after which Brendan has agreed to respond as he sees fit. I think the GTN doing its part in facing the challenge confronting those of us seeking through action and ideas a radically transformed future that is substantially freed from war, poverty, exploitation, geopolitics, and is respectful of human rights and international law, committed to global cooperative mechanisms protective of the eco-stability and responsive to the ethics of eco-responsibility and the just distribution of obligations, as well as the spiritual sources of an affirmative planetary politics. In effect, it is a revolutionary realism that can only be fulfilled in the form of a ‘necessary utopia.’ Without such an aspiration consciousness, ‘The Great Transition’ will remain a pipe dream. This may sound paradoxical, but it is my way of expressing hope without underestimating the gravity and urgency of the challenge. Brendan Mackey’s introductory essay is printed after my comment, but deserves reading first.] 





Comment of Richard Falk on Brendan Mackey’s essay devoted to The Earth Charter


Unquestionably, this latest theme of GTN relating ethics to ecological sustainability is a crucial dimension of planetary viability for the peoples of the earth as it is even more so for those non-human beings that live and suffer together with humans throughout the world. The raging wild fires of the Australia summer have taken more than one billion animal lives should be viewed as an apocalyptic event although the lethal effects on human beings have been relatively minor, at least so far. Yet the Australian inferno is nevertheless a metaphor depicting a flaming future for humanity, and its shared destiny with the whole of nature. Beyond this, the small number of direct human casualties totally discredits and ethically undermines the kind of anthropocentric worldview that has guided modernity at least from the time of the Industrial Revolution. What we can and must learn is that human activity cannot and should not be unconditionally safeguarded at the expense of its natural surroundings. Although this might be obvious to the ecologically minded minority among us, it is not reflected in the behavioral patterns of either the public or private sectors of society, which remain in virtual denial as to the structural impacts of human activity on global ecosystems, the central explanation for regarding our time as that of the Anthropocene, distinguished by the rise of human agency with respect to planetary wellbeing.


Brendan Mackey and several of the prior commentators on this latest GTN theme make perceptive observations about the appropriate framework of shared values and the eco-ethical consciousness needed to meet the unmet challenges of the Anthropocene. My concern is less with configuring the ethical framework than in providing political traction to overcome the mounting dangers of catastrophic scope associated with failures to address such fundamental issues of ecological accommodation as global warming and diminishing biodiversity. What has become alarmingly evident is less the ethical deficiencies of Earth Charter subscribers than the refusals of political leaders and private sector elites to act responsibly on the basis of scientific knowledge and longer-term interests.


I believe that it is already widely known what should be done to achieve a transition to conditions of ecological equilibrium, but that such knowledge is not acted upon because of several imposing obstacles:

                        —short-termism: the mismatch between the accountability cycles of political, financial, and corporate leaders and officials, rarely more than a few years, and the time horizons of ecological challenges that impinge catastrophically and quite possibly, irreversibly, but are perceived, if at all, as posing insufficient immediate threats to justify expensive and controversial policy adjustments in the near term;

                        —special interests: reinforcing these short time horizons of policy-makers are a variety of influential collective entities and lobbying groups that are opposed to making adjustments because of the probable cut in profit margins or the heightening economic and political risks; for instance, the importance of coal exports in Australia exerts influence on national politicians of the party in power not to restrict coal exports as acceptable sources of energy or even to impose carbon emission controls at home, although the majority of citizens would accept such adjustments;

                        —ideological and religious dogma: capitalist thinking tends toward trusting  markets, and distrusting states and public institutions; this makes it difficult to regulate the private sector in accord with the public interest if the impingement seems major, or even to clarify the public interest as understood by science and rationality; also, fundamentalist religious doctrines generally oppose taking steps that seem to question the omnipotence of God or divine governance as expressions of hubris;

                       —emergency diversions: wartime conditions, or situations of political tension and civil strife, as well as acute economic stress resulting from food insecurities or disease epidemics divert attention from the more abstract threats of climate change or loss of biodiversity;

                        —technophilia: the widespread sense in the private sector that technology will provide solutions when ecological problems reach a crisis stage.


Against this background, the Earth Charter is a helpful counter-ideological text that enlightens us as to the ethical foundations of what should be and needs to be done to uphold planetary viability, but it fails to take the indispensable next step, which is to depict the politics that might make these values operational on a sufficient scale as to meet the challenges and safeguard the human and non-human future of living together on one earth in a benevolent fashion. In this sense, the Earth Charter and kindred expressions of ecological worldviews has established an overall ethical consensus. This consensus has affected public opinion, as reinforced by the increased frequency of such adverse experiences as extreme weather events, droughts, floods, fires, mass migration. Despite such developments, there still is an insufficient political will or atmosphere of urgency to address with resolve and fidelity to the precautionary principle. As a result, the root causes of these Anthropocene challenges are not being addressed in the spirit of the GTN ethos.


Depicting the ethical framework is useful, but what makes change happen on such a momentous scale has to be more transformative in spirit and substance, which depends on nothing less than what has sometimes been called ‘a second Axial Revolution.’ Perhaps, a better formulation is to speak of the need for ‘a civilizational rupture,’ the break with the expansionary vision of modernity, and its replacement by an ecologically crafted civilizational experience that is highly sensitive to the ecological limits and positive potentialities of the Anthropocene. Such an eco-political transformation of values postulates a radical civilizational future that is neither predictable, nor achievable by normal procedures of advocacy and political agitation. We know what needs doing, but not yet how to get it done. To exhibit urgency may catalyze a movement with transformative energy, and so all efforts to align with an earth-centered worldview can be considered as preparation for the hard work ahead to ensure species survival and a new ecological equilibrium. The Earth Charter as a political action document enjoys the status of being ‘a necessary utopia.’




Toward a Great Ethics Transition: The Earth Charter at Twenty

Brendan Mackey


Why a Common Ethical Framework

Seventy-two years ago, in 1948, the newly created United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. With a catastrophic war fresh in people’s memory, the recognition of the “inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” augured a sound ethical foundation for a hopeful future. Although the subsequent decades saw the tension and tumult of the Cold War (and some hot ones), a new internationalism was also on the upswing.


Since then, a profusion of declarations and charters have sought to establish normative ethics based on universal values and principles presumed to be shared by all people, nations, and cultures. This includes, among others, the Stockholm Declaration (1972), the World Charter for Nature (1982), the Rio Declaration (1992), the Earth Charter (2000), the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007), the Draft Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth (2010), and the Principles of Climate Justice (2011).


The proposition that there are universal ethical values and principles shared among all the Peoples of the world remains contested and, in some respects, rightly so. Post-modernist critics warn us that a single idea universally applied can ignore local contexts and swallow up the diverse values that reside in the richly textured tapestry that is the hallmark of human society and our biocultural relationships. However, between the bookends of absolutism (where there is only one truth) and radical relativism (where everything is subjective) lies a pluralism that leaves open the question of which of our many choices are valid and justified.[i] From this perspective, normative ethics seeks principles to guide moral conduct when considering the right and wrong thing to do in specific contexts, and accepts that there are serious consequences from our actions (and inactions) that can be objectively assessed.


A universal ethical framework may seem like a distant hope given the growth of populist authoritarianism and a narrowing interpretation of national self-interest. However, the multiple global threats and pressures we collectively face demand global solutions and unprecedented levels of international cooperation among national governments, across all sectors and between all Peoples. Any such systemic transformation will require a roadmap guided by shared values about what we want the future to look like and an agreed set of normative ethical principles to provide the necessary moral guidance.


The Earth Charter Story


The Earth Charter, now nearing its twentieth anniversary, remains one of the most sweeping efforts to define such a global ethic. Its origins date back to the 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (or “Brundtland Commission”), entitled Our Common Future, which recommended the creation of a new international charter with principles to guide the transition to sustainable development. Maurice Strong, one of the report’s draftersand a former executive director of the UN Environment Program, followed through on this recommendation by putting the drafting of an Earth Charter on the agenda of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, for which he was Secretary-General. The international community however, passed on this opportunity, instead supporting the package of “Rio Commitments.” Following the Earth Summit, Strong, together with Mikhail Gorbachev working through Green Cross International, and with support from the Dutch government, launched in 1995 a project to draft an Earth Charter as a civil society initiative.Extensive consultations on Earth Charter principles were conducted through 1995 and 1996, followed by the establishment of an Earth Charter Commission, comprised of respected sustainability leaders. In 1997, a drafting committee was formed, and the drafting process began. Importantly, the Earth Charter Commission retained control of the text of the Earth Charter and has never considered changing or adding to the text, nor has it established a procedure for doing this. Over the next four years, a growing network of national committees, civil society organizations, experts in various fields, and concerned and interested individuals weighed in via a series of global, regional, and national consultations.


The drafting process aimed to develop a text based on an analysis of existing international law and declarations, including those by civil society, and met with stakeholders across the globe to reach agreement on a document that reflected a global consensus on shared values and principles for a more just, sustainable, and peaceful world. In March 2000, the Commission met at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris to finalize the document, and the Earth Charter was formally launched in ceremonies at The Peace Palace in The Hague.[ii]  Earth Charter International (ECI) was subsequently established, comprising the ECI Secretariat, its Education Center, and the ECI Council, to carry the work forward. The ECI Secretariat, based at the United Nations-mandated University for Peace in Costa Rica, aims to promote the mission, vision, strategies, and policies adopted by the ECI Council. The Charter has been translated into over forty languages and endorsed by over 7,000 organizations, including UNESCO and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).


The Earth Charter is a rich text, consisting of sixteen main principles and sixty-one supporting principles organized into the four themes: Respect and Care for the Community of Life; Ecological Integrity; Social and Economic Justice; and Democracy, Nonviolence, and Peace. These principles are bookended by a preamble and a concluding statement called “The Way Forward.”  The Earth Charter drafting processes aimed to articulate a world ethic that complements and builds on those ethical norms situated within specific cultural and geographical contexts. Although the final product was sweeping in scope, the drafting process did still draw boundaries, for example, by limiting the text to ethical values and principles for which there was evidence of a broad and diverse base of support either in civil society or in formal intergovernmental instruments. As a result, the Earth Charter remains a document of its time. While originally conceived as an ethical framework for national governments, as a Peoples’ Charter, the Earth Charter does not specify what particular responsibilities fall upon which actors and sectors of society. And, while outlining the major global challenges at the time, it does not identify the root causes of our crises.


The Earth Charter’s ethic reflects an ambitious effort to bring together ecological and social concerns within one framework, mindful of humanity’s special relationship with our planetary home and the greater community of life. The Earth Charter recognizes that achieving social and economic justice will require both ensuring ecological integrity as well as the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, peaceful assembly, association, and dissent—among other things. As a global ethic, the Earth Charter has the characteristics of what Nigel Dower calls a rooted and ecologically sensitive cosmopolitanism. It is a covenant that defines an overarching way of life and answers the question of how to construct our lives together such that all life flourishes. From this perspective, the Earth Charter can be seen as a voluntary, unconditional commitment to our relationships with other persons, nature, and those things recognized as embodying the goodness, rightness, and truth of our being, and the moral obligations required to maintain and fulfill these relationships in the midst of the inevitable uncertainties and contingencies we face.


The Next Twenty Years

The Earth Charter opens with the statement that “We stand at a critical moment in Earth’s history, a time when humanity must choose its future.”’ The urgency of this moment cannot be exaggerated: global warming, just one of many crises we face, is already causing systemic disruptions and heading past the 1.5 °C threshold necessary for a livable planet by 2040 and well beyond 3 °C by the end of this century. The integrity of our systems of governance is cracking, and current institutional arrangements are struggling to provide the necessary regulatory oversight.


Achieving sustainability will also require lifelong commitment by people of courage, acting individually and collectively in their communities and polity, to make judgments about what is right and wrong in human affairs and take the actions needed to advance that which is judged good and just. We cannot rely on the notion that good will inevitably prevail because it is divinely pre-ordained or inevitable given a rising tide of cosmic consciousness, notwithstanding the importance of each person’s spiritual development.


The Earth Charter, and its sister declarations of universal ethical values and principles, can be put to work in meeting our collective challenges. All political and economic decisions and policies, however apparently pragmatic such as matters of trade and defense, entail ethical considerations. We need to normalize the idea of calling out the ethical dimensions of public and vested interest responses to the urgent problems of our time, including the climate and biodiversity crises, and subjecting them to critical moral evaluation.


Global economics and its governance could be fruitfully aligned with Earth Charter principles. We need to build systems that are supportive of the greater community of life and the interdependence of people and nature. The scope of the problem suggests the need for a new World Environment Organization mandated with a trusteeship function over global public goals and common goods, with the Earth Charter articulating the ethical basis of these trusteeship duties. Although the idea of new international institutions swims against the prevailing current, we will not have the “green economy” we need without a new economic vision and the institutional means to regulate private abuse of the global commons and goods held in common. [iii]


In addition to new institutions, we also need ongoing dialogue about ethics. The Earth Charter recognized this, asserting, “We must deepen and expand the global dialogue that generated the Earth Charter, for we have much to learn from the ongoing collaborative search for truth and wisdom.” Much has happened in the two decades since the launch of the Earth Charter that has enriched and added to the global dialogue on ethics and sustainability, in both formal policy forums and in civil society deliberations. Furthermore, many problems, such as climate change, have grown in scale and urgency, and others, such as the disruptions caused by technological innovations, have arisen, straining political and economic systems. The lexicon of sustainability has expanded in response to these developments. One example is the influence of First Nations worldviews, values, and principles in national and international policy and law. The term “Mother Earth” has now received formal recognition through the UN General Assembly’s adoption of a resolution to designate April 22 as International Mother Earth Day, and Mother Earth is referred to in the Paris Agreement on climate change.  The Earth Charter’s section on ecological integrity is also in need of updating to incorporate more recent concepts that are now central to our understanding of global sustainability, such as “planetary boundaries” and the “Anthropocene.”


If the promise of the Earth Charter is to be realized, a platform is needed to facilitate ongoing dialogue around the ethical dimensions of the urgent global problems we face, the application to them of accepted ethical norms, as well as the search for new universal norms and principles to guide our responses. This undertaking raises a number of practical questions, such as who would lead the effort, and what organization has the credibility and is in a position to organize and conduct the kind of inclusive international dialogue that would be required? This would have to be much more than just an archiving exercise but a process of deliberative and engaged dialogue from which is forged ethical principles of a covenantal nature.


My call for enabling the Earth Charter to speak directly to critical contemporary events and policy issues and for continuing the global ethics dialogue that led to the Earth Charter is not alone: many persons who have played significant roles in the Earth Charter movement since its inception in the 1990s have likewise argued for its importance.[iv] There are thousands of citizens as well as experts in every country of the world who are eager to participate in a renewed global ethics dialogue, and with the potential to empower the Earth Charter and its vision for the great transition we so desperately need.[v] All that is lacking is a formal procedure by which this can take place, underwritten by a strong international institutional base, and the leadership that can assure its credibility and inspire worldwide participation.   


Twenty years ago. Kamla Chowdhry, one of the founding members of the Earth Charter Commission, asked, How can we ensure that ethical and spiritual values get a fair hearing with the economist, technologist, and the industrialist? How do we weld economics with ethics, and have a technology with a human face?[vi] Answering those questions remains central to our efforts today for a more just, sustainable and peaceful world.



[i] Phillip Selznik, The Moral Commonwealth: Social Theory and the Promise of Community (Oakland: University of California Press, 1992).

[ii] Steven Rockefeller led the drafting process. Earth Charter Commission members included Kamla Chowdry, Mohamed Sahnoun, Henriette Rasmussen, Mercedes Sosa, Erna Witoelar, Wangari Maathai, Pierre Calame, Leanardo Boff, Rudd Lubbers, and HRH Princess Basma Bint Talal.

[iii] Klaus Bosselmann, Peter G. Brown, and Brendan Mackey, “Enabling a Flourishing Earth: Challenges for the Green Economy, Opportunities for Global Governance,” Review of European Community & International Environmental Law 21 (2012): 23-39. Also see discussion in Klaus Bosselmann and J. Ronald Engel, eds., The Earth Charter: A Framework for Global Governance (Amsterdam: KIT Publishers, 2010).

[iv] Peter Burdon, Klaus Bosselmann, and Kirsten Engel, eds., The Crisis in Global Ethics and the Future of Global Governance: Fulfilling the Promise of the Earth Charter (Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar, 2019).

[v] J. Ronald Engel and Brendan Mackey, “The Earth Charter, Covenants and Earth Jurisprudence,” in Exploring Wild Law: The Philosophy of Earth Jurisprudence, ed. Peter Burdon. (Cambridge, MA: Wakefield Press, 2011), 313-323.

[vi] Kamla Chowdhry, Challenges of the 21st Century: Gandhi’s Moral Imperative (National Foundation for India, New Delhi, 1998).